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Elite Now Gain From Mines, Oil: Watchdog

The environmental watchdog Global Witness has issued an indicting report on Cambodia’s potential oil and mineral wealth, angering again many senior officials.

The report, “Country for Sale,” outlines the exploitation of the country’s gas and mineral rights for the benefit of a small elite.

Over the past 15 years, the London-based group says, 45 percent of Cambodia’s land has been purchased by private interests, while the millions of dollars paid by private companies for such concessions have not reached the national treasury.

Exploratory mining licenses have quietly been allocated to members of the ruling elite linked to the Cambodian People’s Party or their relatives, according the report.

Members of the armed forces guard mine sites in the provinces of Stung Treng, Preah Vihear and Pursat, and at some sites, land has been taken from local people through reported intimidation, according to the report.

Neither the National Assembly nor the appropriate ministries have enough say over the National Petroleum Authority, which is under the direct control of Hun Sen and his deputy, Sok An, the report says.

Global Witness in 2007 reported a “kleptocratic elite” had sold the country’s timber away, in a report that was banned from the country. The group says now many of the same officials are managing the country’s mineral and petroleum wealth.

Of mining sites investigated by the group in 2008, all were owned or controlled by members of the political or military elite.

The report names Gen. Ouk Kosa, head of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces military development zones; Cham Borey, brother of Commerce Minister Cham Prasidh; Dy Chouch, Hun Sen’s first cousin; Gen. Meas Sophea, commander of RCAF infantry; Sen. Ly Yong Phat, a CPP lawmaker and wealthy tycoon; senior Hun Sen adviser Om Yentieng; Sen. Lao Meng Khin, director of Pheapmix, one of Cambodia’s most powerful companies; Gen. Pol Sareoun, recently appointed commander-in-chief of RCAF; and Try Pheap, a pro-CPP tycoon.

Not every official named in the report was available for comment, but all who were dismissed the report as biased, exaggerated, or without evidence.

Om Yentieng, who is the head of Cambodia’s Human Rights Committee, said Global Witness had a track record of defaming the government.

“They have been speaking very badly about the Cambodian government for years,” he said. “They have a lot of things to say, a lot of lies about Cambodia.If it were like Global Witness says, Cambodia would already be like Hell.”

Defense Minister Gen. Tea Banh said he could not accept the report without evidence, calling Global Witness “a very bad group that always destroys the reality of Cambodia.”

“Cambodia has its own laws, and we never violate the law,” he said. “The companies that have licenses are legal.”

Pol Saroeun, who was named in the Global Witness report for having received mining licenses, dismissed the allegation.

“I have never had any company or run any business at all,” he said. “I am a soldier.”

Meanwhile, Ith Praing, secretary of state for the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Industry, said Cambodia was not even 100 percent sure offshore oil would become a reality.

“It is kind of too early to think about this, but I think the government is not stupid in managing revenue from its resources,” he said.

Global Witness Director Gavin Hayman told VOA Khmer that Cambodia should not provide new concessions to private companies too quickly, and should instead review the concessions they have already given. International donors should pressure the government to undertake an audit of the concessions, he said.

The Global Witness report accuses donors of turning a blind eye to potential mismanagement of funds and urges them to use their influence—in hundreds of millions of dollars of aid each year—to ensure the revenues go to the populace.

Millions of dollars are missing from national coffers in oil deals, the report notes.

For instance, each company is required to pay a negotiable signature bonus to the National Petroleum Authority—like the $7.5 million paid by Indonesia’s PT Medco Energi Internasional. Each company will alos pay a significant fee annually for production in a concession block, just below $800,000 per concession in the first year.

So far, for the years 2006 and 2007, none of that money has appeared on the books of the Ministry of Economy and Finance.